Atlanta Rabbi Josh Lesser hopes to be able to marry a man without being ridiculed for his homosexuality in the South someday, but knows it is a long way off, having been shunned by the faith community in the past.
The 43-year-old once defended his gay and progressive congregation, Bet Haverim, at an interfaith meeting and was surpised that no one stood up with him—though many came to him privately afterward, their silence during the meeting showed Lesser how tough open acceptance of gays is for many Southern religious leaders.
With New Jersey becoming the latest state to allow gay marriage on Monday, the Northeast is inching toward becoming the first region to legalize it (Pennsylvania is the holdout), but the South is the largest area in the country with little or no traction for same sex couples hoping to marry.
“It takes courage to be adversarial and outspoken in the South,” Lesser said. “Part of what we need to do is cultivate that courage.”
New Jersey has joined thirteen other states, plus Washington D.C., that have legalized or recognized same sex marriage, while five other states offer broad protections that fall just short.
Lesser said serving the gay community in Atlanta means having "the vantage point of a northern community from a Southern city."
The challenge is keeping up the fight for LGBT equal rights without demonizing the conservative South, he said. So far, there hasn't been any luck.
“Gay marriage seems completely out of reach right now,” Lesser said.
Growing up with harsh doctrines that rail against gays and lesbians in the South has created apathy in the LGBT community, Lesser said.
Beating that status quo can be empowering and invigorating, judging by the gleeful couples in New Jersey who waited all night to take advantage of a state Supreme Court decision that would not delay their right to tie the knot.
After New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s office announced that they would drop an appeal on decision, Garden State Equality executive director Troy Stevenson was euphoric. Lawyers on behalf of his LGBT rights group fought the state in court to uphold same-sex weddings.
“It’s absolutely amazing watching these couples get married last night,” Stevenson said. “It’s another thing to see them, and to try and rip their rights away.”
Although same sex marriage will not be legally contested by Christie's administration, Stevenson said advocates are weighing their options to ensure its legality.
Malcolm Lazin, the executive director of Equality Forum, a Philadelphia-based organization seeking national and international LGBT rights through education, cites divisions decades old as a reason for the lockstep disapproval of same sex marriage.
“Some of it is religious based,” Lazin said pointing also to the conservative nature of the South in general and its battles against more progressive ideas of the 1960s. “The South resisted integration and switched party allegiance. It’s part of the culture.”
But the South doesn't have a lock on conservatism. Pennsylvania's GOP-controlled legislature and Republican Gov. Tim Corbett oppose same-sex marriage, causing a bleak outlook for those unions.
“At the current time, it’s a near impossibility,” Lazin said. “I don’t even think it’s likely there will be a hearing on the House side.”
The better option may be challenging the recognition of same sex marriage in courts whenever possible, in Pennsylvania and in other states, Lazin said.
In states like New Mexico that have no law or anti-gay amendments, he believes the state Supreme Court will uphold attempts to recognize same marriage.
In Illinois, a same-sex marriage bill has been lingering in legislative limbo since being passed in state Senate and stalling in the house in the last session.
Parts of the Midwest stretching from Kansas to North Dakota along with Texas, Oklahoma and some Southwestern states resemble a lonely sea where anti-gay amendments or broad recognition for civil unions are in place. That leaves states that do recognize same sex marriage the only welcoming places for LGBT equality looking like bookends on either coast of the United States.
Rabbi Lesser likens the struggle for same sex marriage to many of the others that he has faced.
“From the religious perspective, we all know the story of David and Goliath?” he asks. “Eventually we will prevail.”